Two vegans who took on the burger giant - Little relish in McLibel victory

By Sandra Barwick

UK News; Friday 20 June 1997

HELEN Steel and Dave Morris look set to join Swampy, Animal and Muppet Dave in the annals of fame as environmental activists.

Instead of spending days cramped in mud tunnels, they have spent two years immured in the High Court with Mr Justice Rodger Bell and Richard Rampton, QC, for McDonald's.

Many see them as eco-warriors with box files, but, whatever the view of their politics, in their battle with McDonald's they have proved themselves effective adversaries, at some personal cost, against a powerful corporation.

In their spare time Miss Steel, 31, has been working behind a bar and Mr Morris, 43, a single father, has been looking after his eight-year-old son, Charlie.

The pressures of conducting a court case without any help at home have been considerable. In Mr Morris's phrase: "Rampton and the judge won't have been doing any vaccuuming."

As a result, they did not have time to read some of the documents they received or to find some witnesses. Mr Morris, in particular, feels frustrated that they had not done even more. "It nags you all the time."

Miss Steel, whose mother was a shop worker and father a teacher and union branch secretary, said: "I've always believed you should stand up to bullies. When I was quite young, probably about eight, in Preston, there was a boy who would bully the other kids in the street. One day Mum said go and hit him back. And basically after that, he backed off. I learnt that lesson. I've always felt people, animals and the environment shouldn't be exploited."

Mr Morris merely says he was brought up to question things by his parents. His mother was a primary school teacher and his father a door-to-door salesman.

"My parents were very humanitarian and supporters of the Labour Party, socialist, and they encouraged me to think for myself. I've just wanted to change the world since I was 17. I want a society based on sharing and freedom, not on greed and power."

Many teenagers would echo their sentiments but most grow up and effectively join the world they used to criticise. Miss Steel and Mr Morris did not. Their youthful idealism continued doggedly into adulthood.

Both are vegans. Both are anarchists. McDonald's, the largest international meat selling company, represents everything they despise. Mr Morris was an active trade unionist when he worked for six years in the Post Office in Islington, becoming secretary of his branch.

The two met in a community action group based in Haringey, north London, but really got to know each other during the miners' strike. Despite their long comradeship, they have never been emotionally involved but are now probably the most famous uninvolved couple since Torvill and Dean.

Together and singly, they have fought under all the famous banners of the past couple of decades. Morris campaigned against nuclear energy. Anti-traffic - they have campaigned against a local road scheme, Stop the City demo in the City of London, anti-poll tax and pro Wapping print unions. Both regularly attended demonstrations outside the News International newspaper plant at Wapping in 1986. After that, she began to get involved in London Greenpeace, a small group not associated with Greenpeace International.

Both decided when writs were issued for libel against them in 1990 that they would not apologise and retract. Miss Steel said: "We thought, why should we apologise? We haven't anything to apologise for. McDonald's should be apologising. How dare they ask us to apologise?"

They were aided by the fact that they had few, if any, material goods to lose. Between them, they have an income of around 7,000 a year. Mr Morris receives single parent's allowance of around 70 a week. Miss Steel works part time.

McDonald's had no hope of ever recovering costs, let alone damages, from them. Both were prepared to give up the chance of finding a job for the next two years to fight the case.

There were moments of mirth during the case. For example, in 1995 after they had asked McDonald's to hand over 1994 documents on the bacterial content of their hamburgers, the court was told the documents had been held for safekeeping by Group 4 security but had inadvertently been destroyed by them in error.

On the whole, they have found the past years tough. Miss Steel was getting home from the case on Fridays at 5.30pm, starting in the bar at 9.30pm and working till four in the morning. As a result, she was shattered most of the time. "It's been incredibly stressful."

She hated the fact that McDonald's occupied her thoughts all the time, even invading her dreams. Several times she wept in court from stress and exhaustion.

Mr Morris worried about his son. Once during the case, the boy broke his leg and needed 24-hour care. Both got three days off after McDonald's offered to pay for a childminder.

"Everyone in the court room was being paid hand over foot to be there, except us. All the way through, you're dependent on the goodwill of others - my neighbours and friends for child care," said Mr Morris.

McDonald's instructed a QC, a junior and a firm of solicitors to look after their interests. Mr Morris believes his relationship with his son has suffered because of the time he has spent on the case.

But they experienced "overwhelming public support - messages, donations, offers to help - distributing leaflets, people coming up to us on the Tube and shaking our hands," said Mr Morris. "It was all that that enabled us to carry on," said Miss Steel. "We wouldn't have had the strength otherwise."

Within the courtroom, they adhered to certain rules of their own. Not once did either call Mr Justice Bell "My Lord". She said: "We tried to talk to him like a normal person." Mr Morris once referred to Mr Rampton, more used to a respectful "M'learned friend" from colleagues, as "Richard".

"He'll be calling me Dickie next," objected the QC.

Once interest in the judgment has died down, Mr Morris wants to spend more time with Charlie "to teach him to question things". But he and Miss Steel intend to carry on campaigning.


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